Maltese band NAFRA performed with a view to showcase their rich culture to the worlds.

It was probably the first ever Maltese band that performed on Indian soil. And the opportunity was seized by the five Maltese men to give a glimpse of their culture that Maltese people have begun reclaiming, after remaining under subjugation of a foreign power for so long. Malta gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964.

NAFRA was formed in 2004, with the intention of reviving the interest of Maltese nationals in their heritage and bringing to the fore all that had been lost during these years. Led by Ruben Zahra, the band rediscovered some of the traditional Maltese instruments, made them part of its repertoire and blended them with modern instruments to serve a contemporary fare to today’s audiences. “Being under the rule of so many countries, we naturally inherited many influences from them. Though it is very European in its set-up, the soul is Mediterranean. That’s what we wanted to show. Since people aren’t exposed to Maltese music here, we explained it through references,” says Zahra. The band was invited to perform at the Delhi International Arts Festival 2009, and its concert was supported by the High Commission of Malta in New Delhi.

The instrumental ensemble comprised Daniel Cauchi on it-Tambur (tambourine) and il-Flejguta (cane flute), Mario Frendo on the viola, Yuri Charyguine on the accordion, Christopher Michael Camilleri on the bass clarinet and Zahra himself alternating between Maltese bagpipe iz-Zaqq and iz-Zummara, a primitive clarinet.

“There came a time when Maltese people stopped associating pride with the traditional instruments, especially the elite class, for most of the instruments like it-Tambur, iz-Zaqq, etc. were all played by the peasant community. In 1999, I started doing research in reviving the instruments within a modern framework,” says Zahra who in alignment with the band’s profile has named it NAFRA, meaning a call or alarm.

Scottish bagpipes

“In olden times, farmers would use these instruments to call for a gathering. They would use these sounds to gather people, so they had a social application. All the instruments were crafted locally, and they are so simple to make that even we can craft them under the guidance of local craftsmen,” says Zahra who has a special interest in the Maltese bagpipe made of goatskin, hair and bamboo.

The British left behind a strong tradition of boy scouts which to date attract voluntary participation by the Maltese youngsters to instil in themselves a sense of discipline and integrity, and Zahra, seeing most of the bands using Scottish bagpipes was inspired to work with the Maltese bagpipe.

And even though NAFRA is rooted in folk heritage, it comes up with contemporary music, performing all over Europe. “It’s not a regular folk band, nor is it a fusion. We don’t jam and come up with impromptu patterns. Our scoring is structured and has a strong base of Western classical music. So, our scores come out to be a little complicated. We don’t have resources in Malta, we don’t have mountains…we have our culture to showcase to the world,” says Zahra’s fellow musician Daniel Cauchi.